Professor Zafra Lerman, President of the Malta Conferences Foundation,
Let me begin by welcoming such a distinguished audience to Malta. And a special welcome to those of you who are visiting us for the first time. I know you will be coming back.
It is indeed an honour to be here today to open the 10th Conference on ‘Frontiers of Science: Innovation, Research, and Education in the Middle East – A Bridge to Peace’.
I am grateful to the Malta Conferences Foundation for bringing this auspicious Conference once again back to Malta.
This year’s session is all the more important as we celebrate the tenth Anniversary of the Malta Conferences.
I find it very encouraging that representatives and experts from all across the Middle East and the Mediterranean, including Nobel laurates, are coming together here in Malta to discuss peace and the best way to achieve it through science.
The last time we met in this setting, in December 2019, it was easier for us all to talk about peace.
Europe had not yet been the theatre of open war, and we did not even imagine that only a few weeks later the world would be plagued by a devastating pandemic.
COVID and the war in Ukraine overturned our realities, and our priorities. These two drastic developments, condensed in only 24 months, epitomise and link the goals we are discussing here today – the benefits of science, as shown by the speed with which an effective vaccine for COVID was developed, though we cannot speak about the way it was distributed around the globe, and the quest for peace, as a natural reaction to the horrific events we are witnessing right at this very moment in Ukraine.
I must confess I am rather uncomfortable in delivering my address to you all today.
And I say this as I had hoped that the international scenario would have been one that accommodated an optimistic and positive speech, that underlined our collective potential to take things forward in the right direction.
As reports of despicable violence and aggression on civilians keep reaching us from Ukraine, as women in Iran face brutal repression, and as injustices continue to prevail in our regions – the Mediterranean and the Middle East, I cannot possibly whitewash reality and address you in a utopic tone, as if nothing is happening around us.
I am sure that as scientists, you will all agree that the first logical step to take when trying to identify solutions, is to identify what lies at the heart of the problem. In medicine we call that ‘diagnosis’.
In our joint quest for peace, we need to ask ourselves whether we really want it.
This is a question that is perhaps uncomfortable, but best posed to leaders of the international community and not to scientists of your calibre.
This being said, I believe that we all have to do our part and reflect on where we are heading as thinking and active members of the global family.
My question is: How willing are individual countries and actors to give up self-centred policies of external interference, sales of armaments and weapons, passivism in the face of astounding social inequalities, populism, and xenophobia?
I mention but a few, but the list could be endless.
The same applies to the international world order.
Let us look at the absurd and tragic situation concerning Ukraine. Can we really speak of international justice when the aggressor sits at the judge’s bench in the UN Security Council and has the ultimate power to sanction its own behaviour?
In the same manner, is it acceptable that we turn a blind eye and gladly engage with repressive regimes or perpetrators of abuses, simply for national and egocentric gains?
At my age, and having observed more than enough red tape, I have come to a point where I openly question these double standards.
This honestly troubles me.
During our last Malta Conference, I had spoken to you about ‘trust’, which lies at the basis of any functioning and durable relationship.
Trust between the citizen and the State, between countries themselves – especially neighbouring countries, trust between the international community, and trust in the bodies that are meant to govern it.
This in my view, is where it all went wrong.
We have lost trust in achieving a greater good and scramble, instead, for regional power, military might, and meaningless economic statistics, that ignore the ‘others’ that we constantly leave behind.
Injustice breeds instability, social unrest, violence, and in some cases, extremist behaviour.
By the same token, it is only through justice, that peace can be fully achieved.
From my own life-time experience as a medical doctor, I know that science is based on fact – it does not function on subjectivity, bias, or prejudice. It is objective.
Very importantly, science speaks one, universal language that knows no boundaries.
Professionals in this field are therefore best equipped with the right tools and with the right frame of mind through which a contribution to peace can be tangibly made.
This is why, despite my gloomy outlook this morning, I believe that the world now more than ever needs people like you to try and find the right solution.
The Middle East is certainly a setting that provides numerous test cases. The challenges and obstacles to peace continue to multiply. It is a perfect laboratory where to experiment and hope for good results.
Apart from the political tensions that prevail in the region, issues like climate change, desertification, pollution, food and energy insecurity, depletion of water supplies, and scarcity of other natural resources all require collective action – no one state can solve these pressing concerns on its own, without help from others.
Much as problems in the region abound, so do talent and knowledge.
The much-talked-about ‘Economic Zone of the Middle East’ of some decades ago – on which I had the opportunity to have a lecture lasting more than about an hour from President Shimon Peres when I had the opportunity to be received by him sometime around 2013-2014, and he was speaking with a passion on the future of this zone coupled with the future of computerisation, digital technology, and all that comes along with it – was based on the potential of the available human resources, making maximum use of their entrepreneurship, versatility, adaptability, and sharp business acumen to raise the region’s economic status from its present state, to one of the highest ranking.
However, colleagues, none of this could happen before the whole region is at peace.
Normally peace develops gradually. We all know, it takes time.
Allow me a few minutes to illustrate how peace can be built up gradually by quoting from a recent IFIMES International Institute article on the recent agreement between the US, Lebanon, and Israel, on gas exploration and exploitation in their claimed respective exclusive economic zones.
I quote: “The agreement… can be a successful model of economic peace that transcends ideology, hostilities, and psychological barriers among people, which results in continuous confrontations between the two countries, and that can later be applied to the Palestinian case as well”.
“The idea of replacement of a military conflict with economic peace – through economic trade agreements, as well as bilateral and regional cooperation that pursues interests of all the involved parties – can be a model for cooperation”.
This is where all of you come in to set the right tone, through taking up the challenges and through project-oriented, hands-on cooperation.
I must say I am impressed by the vast range of subjects treated, or are going to be treated, during this Conference, ranging from advanced physics and chemistry into the realms of nanoscience and nanotechnology and their practical applications to water, energy, and food security.
My humble belief is that these applications will bear fruit and give the desired results if applied in a region where peace, security, and stability prevail. In a region where investors in these new technologies, feel confident they can invest their money.
I am not being negative. I am being realistic.
You, globally renowned leaders in Science Diplomacy, can be the ones to set an example for others to follow and be agents of peace.
On this note, I ask you to be aware of the strong multiplier effect that you possess, especially when mentoring young or junior collaborators.
We often mention youth as the key to tomorrow’s peace.
This is all wrong, because young people are already here today. They are the key to peace.
I therefore strongly urge you to keep in full view the impact that you and your achievements have on our youth and to urge them to use their qualifications and energy in the interest of the broader well-being.
I also ask you to have your say in ensuring that the younger generations, especially our young females, do not encounter any obstacles to full education, mobility, and global opportunities.
An intergenerational dialogue that combines longstanding experience with enthusiasm and new technologies can be greatly successful in the fields of science and research.
By way of conclusion, I gladly reiterate my pleasure at being surrounded by such distinguished and brilliant minds that in the advancement of their work, are also promoters of mutual understanding and dialogue.
I thank you all for choosing Malta to take this noble cause forward.
Thank you for listening. Thank you, very much.